Jarv develops a DEATH WISH
Don’t panic people. Despite my unemployed status, I’ve not really got an actual Death Wish. Rather, I’ve decided that I need a new series and Bronson’s cottage industry of one man ultraviolence strikes me as the answer (mostly because of the third one, if I’m honest). Anyhow, here we’ll be reviewing all 5 Death Wish films, chronicling one man army Paul Kersey taking justice to the punks of New York and Los Angeles. First up, is seminal 1970’s exploitation “classic” Death Wish. Obviously.
Contains Creeps and Spoilers below.
Meet liberal pacifist conscientious objector Paul Kersey. He’s a nice guy with a bleeding heart who spends his time working as an architect and enjoying holidays in Hawaii with his missus. Unfortunately for Paul (and even more unfortunately for his wife) he happens to live in New York, and his wife and daughter are assaulted by a group of “creeps” straight from the crime statistics that he disparages. His wife dies as a result of the assault, and his daughter enters a medically dubious catatonia (more on this in a minute). It’s fair to say that Paul doesn’t take this very well, and when a client in Arizona presents him with a gun, he decides to deliver some street justice to the punks Bronson style. Trying to stop him are the New York Police department, led by Ochoa, but, really, there’s no stopping the Kerse. So, shit happens, punks get wasted and then there’s a full-on stunner of an ending.
Death Wish is a film that defies reasonable analysis. It’s a cult classic for a reason, mostly because of Bronson in the lead, but there’s much to both like and dislike at the same time. The problem with it is that almost everything to dislike contributes some way to the success of the film. To start with, let’s quickly look at the acting. Bronson is, obviously, awesome. But he’s also clearly a man in his 50’s (and keep that in mind for how long the series has to go), and no matter how the director (hack Michael Winner) shows Bronson’s physique in the holiday scene at the beginning, there’s no real getting around the fact that this is basically an old dude indulging in some ultraviolence. Next up is Vincent Gardenia as Ochoa. In many ways, he’s better than Bronson, given that he’s channeling the great Walter Matthau performance from The Taking of Pelham 123 , but this isn’t a real surprise, as Winner’s a hack and hacks have a tendency towards outright theft (looking at you, again, Cokey). Nevertheless, his character provides the balance for Bronson’s increasingly insane central performance. The rest of the support is irrelevant to the film, other than this was a very early appearance of Jeff Goldblum as one of the creeps.
What Death Wish actually is, despite reputation, is a study of a crime victim losing his mind. Bronson’s Kersey starts out beating the shit out of a mugger with a sock full of loose change, but gradually steps over every single line on the way to eventually becoming a killing machine. The thing here is due entirely to how he perceives himself, and in this case the pivotal scene in the film isn’t the rape and beating (which isn’t very rapey anyway, but more on this in a moment, too). Rather, the key moment in the film is Kersey watching a “cowboy” performance while in Tucson. It’s evident from Bronson’s performance here that he clearly sees himself as one of the men in white hats, and it’s his job to run a load of no good varmits in black hats out of his town. This comes up over and over again throughout the film but is really hammered home at the end when a grievously wounded Kersey tells one of the Creeps to “Draw”, and when told by Ochoa to get out of town, Kersey asks “By Sundown?” with a massive amount of relish. The film plays with Western dialogue and convention all the way through, because, to put it simply, in Kersey’s head he’s the new Sherrif in town. Actually, Bronson shines depicting Kersey’s mental collapse- from the intensely uncomfortable scene where he smashes the sock full of quarters to the nervy (and demented) dinner with his son in law, through to the frankly fucking incredible last shot of the film, this is played with some real flair.
Talking about that last shot, it’s brilliant in so many ways. Kersey here has completely flipped out, and when he sees a group of creeps hassling a woman in the station in Chicago, the look on his face says that he’s now actively pleased to have entered into this because he’s here in the Windy City to clean town. It’s real relish, and a great cliffhanger to leave the film on- there’s no doubt that Kersey is going to carry on whacking punks, muggers and creeps in whatever city he’s in.
So, I originally said that Death Wish is based on a Western. It’s not, I was wrong. However, what it clearly is, if you think about it in modern terms, is a superhero origin film. This is what could have happened to Peter Parker. That sounds like I’m being facetious, but I’m genuinely not- we’re witnessing the genesis of “The Vigilante”, and the final shot of the film leaves us in absolutely no doubt at all as to what he’s going to continue to do with his free time.
Now, I’m afraid, it’s time to discuss rape in cinema again. Death Wish is an exploitation film, for sure, and given the period and subject matter these films tend to require a rape sequence of some description. What caught me by surprise, this time around, though, was how tame it is. I don’t think the punks actually do go through with the rape (although they clearly intend to). Instead, the most traumatic part of the home invasion is the beating handed out to Mrs. Kersey, while the weirdest is that Goldblum spray paints Carol’s ass. This is where Winner being a hack comes to the fore- as he’s trying to show the punks as reprehensible, so came up with the spray painting- except all that is is kind of weird, and a bit comical today. I’m not saying that I want it to be rapier, because I don’t, but the result is that Carol’s catatonia then becomes, well, bizarre. I’m sure it was a horrible event and whatnot, but catatonia as a result of getting her ass spray painted? Nah, you’ve lost me there.